Ian Nicholls, AROnline‘s historian-in-residence, tells the Rover-Triumph story, and their part in the downfall of the British motor industry.
Here, in the twelfth part, he relates how the Specialist Car Division triumphantly unveiled the Range Rover, the Triumph Stag and the entry-level Toledo. But there were troubles, too, thanks to increasingly rampant industrial action and far too many cars lost.
The Rover and Triumph story: a year of contrasts…
On 9 January 1970, Standard-Triumph held a Board meeting. Among the topics discussed were future sports car projects. ‘Lynx’ was now joined by Project Bullet. The Bullet was a two-seater sports car derivative of ‘Lynx’.
The Minutes report: ‘On the Lynx it was noted that the specification had been modified to establish the revised bonnet profile to improve visibility with a more pronounced V-shape front incorporating seven-inch diameter headlamps in place of the twin five-inch lamps fitted previously and with windscreen wipers which were semi-concealed when not in use.
‘It was intended that the front end would permit a common condition with the proposed shortened version which had been codenamed ‘Bullet’ and careful attention was being paid to both costs and weight of components specified to ensure equivalence to the current hard top version of the TR6.’
Getting Karmann involved in the sports car project
Another Board meeting on 6 February discussed Projects Lynx and Bullet. Spen King told the Board, ‘that it would be necessary to book space and time with Karmann immediately or lose our place in the tooling queue.’
He added: ‘It was agreed that the Chief Engineer should keep the Managing Director of Pressed Steel Fisher informed of our plans and that a financial proposal be put forward and approved before the space is booked. The Chief Engineer (Spen King) undertook to get this proposal together on an extremely urgent basis.’
Some Lynx and Bullet engineering was linked with other Standard-Triumph projects, most notably Triumph Puma, a replacement for the ‘Innsbruck’ 2000/2.5 PI executive saloons. Details about this project are vague, but it appears that the Triumph V8 was earmarked for the car along with a brand new overhead cam inline six-cylinder that began development in 1970. The Standard-Triumph Styling Department was assisted by freelance Designer William Towns in creating the look of the car.
British Leyland: sales and profits down
Then, on 25 February, British Leyland Motor Corporation held its Annual General Meeting in London. What Lord Stokes said became headline news.
For the first four months of the financial year, home car sales fell by £21 million and, although exports were some £10 million to the good at around £100 million, Lord Stokes said that it would not be possible to make up the home loss by increasing exports.
In the first six months of the previous year the group had turned in a profit of £19.3 million, while annual profits were a record-breaking £40.4 million. Profits in the new year were already some £13 million short said Lord Stokes in what became known as his ‘anarchy’ speech.
Lord Stokes and his famous ‘anarchy’ speech
He said: ‘In the first four months of the company’s financial year, strikes and the squeeze have hit the company so hard we have made no profit. The disruptions we are suffering are now so frequent and taking up so much time that the strain on our factory management is becoming intolerable – perhaps that is the aim of the people stirring up trouble.
‘I cannot believe that this state of anarchy is what the majority of our workers really want. We have had in our own plants, and those of our suppliers, walk-outs, go-slows, work-to-rule tactics, working without enthusiasm and other associated activities, very often led by small militant minorities.
‘It is becoming increasingly obvious that the industrial relations system of this country must be based on a framework of law, which could well include ballots impartially administered on a mutually agreed basis. I do not believe that all our stoppages of work result from genuine grievances. They are such a regular feature of our daily life that they can only be planned and deliberate disruption for its own sake.’
Stokes pleads with the unions – and the strikers
Lord Stokes described the recent spread of industrial disputes, mostly unofficial, as of, ‘alarming and chaotic proportions,’ and referred to, ‘distortion of the truth and insidious coercion,’ by the troublemakers.
He also reiterated his plea that a steadily expanding home market was necessary for British car makers to be able to compete in the international markets: ‘This does not seem to have been fully accepted in all responsible circles.’
He warned that unless there was some halt to the current round of increases and inflation, Britain faced a financial crisis through pricing itself out of overseas markets, and raised the spectre of ‘massive unemployment on a scale only remembered by the older generation in this country.’
Strikes across the country crippling the industry
British Leyland was also suffering from outside disputes at Girling, Bromborough (disc brakes), Scottish Stampings, Ayr (beam axles), Smiths Industries, Witney, Oxford (heaters), Forgings and Press Work Ltd., Witton, Birmingham (body and engineering components, including mountings), British Road Services, Swindon depot (transfer of car body shells from Swindon to Cowley), and Willenhall Motor Radiators, Staffs (radiators and components).
Lord Stokes was accused of exaggerating by national union leaders, but he was unrepentant about his speech.
Rover kicks off P6 replacement programme
In March 1970 Rover actively began looking at a successor to the P6 2000/3500, codenamed P10. The initial programme for the Rover P10 was for four- and five-door versions as well as four-door saloon and four-seat, two-door saloon variants. BLMC Finance Director John Barber later said of Rover: ‘Rover was easily the best-controlled company in British Leyland. It had much more information about its costs than any of the others.
‘Everything about Rover was well done. I had a high regard for George Farmer: he ran the company well and was a wise businessman. But he was an ultra-cautious manager and, although we wanted him to put in extra Land Rover capacity, he put some in but nothing like what was needed.’
He continued: ‘Spen King was a super engineer. One of his great strengths was that he could visualise a total motor car and not all engineers can do that. Then William Martin-Hurst was a visionary sort of chap and David Bache a marvellous stylist.’
Unions call for management co-operation
On 10 March British Leyland’s Shop Stewards met with their national union chiefs in Birmingham, and said that they were willing to co-operate with the management in probing labour relations at each of the group’s seventy factories. Jack Jones, General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, and chairman at the meeting, said: ‘It was remarkably constructive. When the fact-finding exercise has been completed, there will be another meeting between union officials and shop stewards. It is now up to management to make sure that there is a response from their side.’
At the meeting, attended by about 300 Shop Stewards and 30 union officials, the Shop Stewards stressed that the peace plan could not succeed without the co-operation of the management at each individual factory. They said that the present managerial set-up was at least partly responsible for all the labour trouble that had plagued the group because, they claimed, local management lacked any real authority to settle difficult disputes on the spot.
Gloomy industrial relations, a sporting future
On 3 April 1970, the same day as British Leyland boasted of all-time record sales in the American market, Standard-Triumph held a Board meeting. Project ‘Lynx’ was on the agenda. The Board heard that ‘it was anticipated that the Lynx metal body would not be available for another three weeks.’
Stocks of the entire Triumph range, which had been heavily depleted during the 11 week dispute at Speke, Liverpool at the end of 1969, were very low, and in the American market there was a famine of TR6 sports cars. ‘We are going flat out to fill back orders, but even before the strike we found it hard to keep up with US demand for this model,’ a spokesman for Standard-Triumph said.
Then, in mid-April, it was the turn of Pilkington Glass to be strikebound. An unofficial strike halted 13 factories in the Pilkington glass group. Supplies of toughened windscreens and windows began to run precariously low at most British car plants.
Disappointing financial results for BLMC
On 27 May, British Leyland announced that it had made only £100,000 for its shareholders in the first half of the current financial year. This compared with £9.5m. in the first half of the previous year. Lord Stokes blamed industrial disputes and rising costs of wages and materials for the disappointing results.
During the six months, British Leyland’s sales were worth £458 million against £438 million, but the number of vehicles sold was down from 474,000 to 448,000. Lord Stokes said that production of 77,000 vehicles was lost from disputes of all kinds.
‘The cash flow which would have resulted from these extra sales is necessary for our plant expansion intended to maintain our sales in the world motor industry and thus keep jobs and opportunities open to all,’ he said.
Hours lost in disputes
Lord Stokes listed the firms — and the cars lost by British Leyland because of disputes at outside suppliers — as follows:
- George Angus (oil seals) 2750
- EPS ( Export Packing Services) 858
- Howard Tenens (transport services) 6641
- Pilkington Glass 1781
- Rubery Owen (axles) 436
- Sankey (subframes) 1192
- Wilmot Breeden (door locks, window winders and bumpers) 330
These figures did not make any allowance for the heavy extra costs caused by disruption of supplies. The glass industry and tyre disputes meant building incomplete cars which had to be finished off later at extra cost.
‘Glass has been flown in from Italy, Belgium and South Africa, and new tyres are being flown in from the Continent to try to maintain production,’ said Lord Stokes.
Not all these disputes afflicted the Specialist Car Division, but many did.
Rover P10 development accelerates
At Rover, in June 1970, Rover P10 package drawings were passed to the Styling Department. The Rover Board was told that month that the P10 was expected to be launched in Autumn 1974. With the V8 engine slated for the top of the range P10, what would go into the lower priced variants?
Rover decided to adapt what it already had and started work on a development of the 1978cc four-cylinder engine found in the P6 saloon. The engine was a twin-cam, four valve per cylinder engine of 2204cc. The extra capacity was achieved by increasing the bore. Five or six prototypes were built, including one with Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection which produced 170 bhp on the test bed.
June 1970 saw both Rover and Triumph make major product announcements.
Triumph Stag launched to an ecstatic media
First out of the stalls was Standard-Triumph on 9 June, with the end-product from that delivery of 6105 KV, the hack 2000 saloon, to Michelotti in Turin back in June 1965. This was the Triumph Stag, perhaps the apogee of Michelotti’s relationship with Canley.
If the Triumph Stag had sold as well as it looked and sounded, then Standard-Triumph should have been onto a winner. Back in July 1966, the STI Board had been given estimates of 12,000 sales a year. In the event production was a mere 25,877 in seven years, with a paltry 6780 for export.
As is well known in car circles, the Stag suffered from overheating, leading to warped cylinder heads on its unique-to-the-model 3-litre V8 engine. The launch of the Stag had been delayed two years in order to perfect the V8, rather than introduce the model with an interim 2.5-litre Petrol Injection six-cylinder engine.
Spen King on the Stag V8’s problems
What was actually wrong with the Triumph V8? Spen King in his 2002 interview with Keith Adams was forthright: ‘A lot of trouble was they were made wrong, I’m afraid. Which was down to the state of bloody mindedness in the workforce, which in Triumph was pretty serious.’
There is a lot of modern research to back up King’s claim.
How much was known in the early 1970s to prospective Stag customers about the car’s mechanical maladies is difficult to decipher. Total production in 1971, 1972 and 1973 was 3901, 4504 and 5508 respectively, suggesting that sales forecasts were way off the mark anyway. Perhaps consumers really wanted an out and out sports car, which the TR6 was.
Range Rover arrives and redefines the market
On 17 June, Rover announced the Range Rover after a press demonstration in Falmouth in Cornwall. In hindsight, this date is as significant in automotive history as 26 August 1959, the day the BMC Mini was announced.
The concept of a civilised four-wheel-drive vehicle that could be driven on the road and used like a normal car was unique in 1970. This was fortunate for British Leyland in the years to come, as the Range Rover would be starved of development funds as the financial condition of the parent company worsened.
During Spen King’s two-year absence at Standard-Triumph, Peter Wilks and his team had developed the Range Rover concept into production reality. Initially, the Range Rover was manufactured in South Block at Solihull alongside two other lines used for the Land Rover. This ultimately restricted production as demand exceeded Solihull’s ability to build them.
For future generations, the concept of a strong, roomy, four-wheel-drive vehicle would be the vehicle that suited their lifestyle and the only way to travel. The Range Rover was pivotal in the survival of Solihull as a manufacturing centre, while the Stag would contribute towards a reputation for fragility for the Triumph marque.
Political change is in the air
The next day was General Election day and it resulted in a surprise change of Government. The Conservative Party, including the Ulster Unionists, would be given a majority of 31.
For British Leyland, the defeat of the Labour Government meant the loss of support of the administration that had encouraged its formation. It also represented disillusion with Labour’s planned economy approach as the domestic situation began to slide out of control with increasing strikes throughout Britain.
The incoming Conservative Government adopted a laissez-faire approach to industry. They also intended to bring in legislation to control the power of the Trade Unions, which set them on a collision course with the TUC.
The end of the road for Standard-Triumph
On 17 August, 1970 British Leyland announced that Standard-Triumph International would now be known as the Triumph Motor Company. The next day British Leyland announced a major re-organisation to speed up integration of the former Leyland and British Motor Holdings companies.
The seven operating divisions were immediately cut to five. The most significant move was the amalgamation of Austin-Morris, the corporation’s volume car division, with the Pressed Steel Fisher body building division to form Britain’s largest car manufacturing organization.
Other moves included the creation of a new division, Special Products, from the former construction equipment and foundry and general engineering divisions and also the formation of British Leyland International to control all overseas operations. George Turnbull, the Managing Director of Austin-Morris since November 1968, became the Managing Director of Austin Morris-Pressed Steel Fisher, which would now be known as the Austin-Morris and Manufacturing group. He would be responsible for plants employing 85,000 work people – nearly half the corporation’s total labour force in the United Kingdom. His deputy was Harry Barber, the Managing Director of PSF.
Specialist Car Division given plenty of attention
The profitable Specialist Car Division, Jaguar, Rover and Triumph remained outwardly unchanged. Former Standard-Triumph man Walter Boardman, the Finance Director of Austin-Morris, became the first divisional appointment in the role of Finance Director.
Bill Davis, George Turnbull’s deputy at Austin-Morris, became Chairman and Chief Executive of Triumph. His predecessor there, Cliff Swindle, joined the headquarters team in Berkeley Square, London, as Director of Facility Planning, a new post created to advise on plans for the rationalisation and expansion of corporation plants.
No changes were made in the Truck and Bus Division headed by Ron Ellis. The appointment of Bill Davis was significant as he was a former BMC apprentice and not from either Standard-Triumph or Leyland. He had clearly impressed George Turnbull and had now been given his old job.
Ex-Austin man put in charge…
Bill Davis was born in 1919 in Birmingham and had joined Austin at Longbridge as an apprentice in 1935. He served in the REME from 1939 to 1946, then rejoined Austin. At the time of the BMH-Leyland merger he had been the BMC Managing Director with responsibility for production.
Bill Davis was soon to get his baptism of fire with Triumph. British Leyland car plants throughout the country were threatened by strikes in support of a guaranteed lay-off pay for workers made idle by stoppages in outside component plants. First to be hit was the Coventry factory of Triumph.
‘There are so many strikes at outside firms these days that we have forgotten what a full pay packet looks like.’ – A union Shop Steward in 1969
Around 7500 workers stayed away on 19 August, because 1300 of their fellow workers had been laid off due to an 11-day-old strike at GKN Sankey at Wellington, Shropshire. Shop Stewards at Triumph had told the company they would repeat the walk-out every time there were lay-offs. The unofficial British Leyland (Motor Corporation Combined) Trade Union Committee (BLTUC) gave a warning that similar action would be taken at other plants in the group.
A spokesman said: ‘The men on the shop floor are absolutely fed up with management’s refusal to pay men laid off through no fault of their own. There are so many strikes at outside firms these days that we have forgotten what a full pay packet looks like. Make no mistake about it this issue is easily the most explosive British Leyland has seen for a long time.’
Toledo launched amid strikes across the firm
On 20 August, the Triumph Toledo was announced. This was a radical reworking of the Triumph 1300 which had been announced in 1965. The car was a re-engineered 1300 converted to rear-wheel drive to create a cheaper car, using the codename Manx 2.
The 1300 model was itself was revised with the SC engine enlarged to 1493cc to create the new Triumph 1500.
The nationwide launch had to be postponed because of strikes. As strikes continued to hit the UK motor industry, Lord Stokes was quoted as saying: ‘We are cutting our own throats and bleeding ourselves to death.’
On 24 August at Triumph’s Coventry plant, 5000 workers walked out after 2000 assembly workers were laid off because of the GKN Sankey dispute. Similar action followed on 1 September when 7000 workers who were laid off through shortages of GKN Sankey pressings were joined by the remainder of the labour force who had threatened to walk out every time fellow workers were laid off without pay.
Sports car plans remain fluid
While all this had been going on, the constituent companies of the Specialist Car Division had been pushing ahead with their individual new vehicle projects seemingly oblivious to what each other was doing. Austin-Morris had been looking at an MG Midget/Triumph Spitfire replacement, codenamed ADO21 (above).
A mid-engined car, as was the fashion at the time, it would use engines of 1300, 1500, and 1750cc. The finance men then pointed out that such a car would cost as much to produce as an MGB GT, from which point the ADO21 became an MGB replacement instead.
A startling full-sized clay model of the Paul Hughes and Harris Mann-styled ADO21 was viewed by BLMC management on 3 November 1970. By this time Spen King of Triumph had visited the USA to assess the North American market for sports cars. From his visit he learned that Americans did not want sophisticated mid-engined sports cars, but simple and cheap vehicles and his findings would influence the British Leyland Corporate Sports car.
The minutes of the management meeting to view the ADO21 recorded: ‘The wooden model of ADO21 was viewed in the studio. The front end was unanimously admired, but there were some reservations about the rear end. However, in view of the Corporate Sports Car Policy, it was decided that no more work is to be done on this programme.’
Management pleas to the workforce and unions
On 26 November Bill Davis, the new Chairman and Managing Director of Triumph, sent a personal letter to the homes of Triumph’s 15,500 employees in Coventry, Liverpool and Birmingham. Mr Davis said: ‘Triumph has for many years been in the forefront with good models of universal appeal and competitively priced. We can keep it there by our joint efforts. I accept that for me this is a seven days a week job but this in itself is insufficient. I need your goodwill.’
He said Triumph was going through rough weather when he took over and this was still the case. Intermittent working, the introduction of a new and complex range of models, many thousands of vehicles unfinished because of lack of components, all presented a very hazardous situation. The age of management cracking the whip had gone. His attitude was to give the facts for an intelligent assessment of the situation. With better communications, progress, whether good or bad, would in future be reported, together with other information of topical interest.
‘Making motor vehicles is not all smooth running. In fact, I think this is the attraction almost like a drug, which makes it so appealing when there must be many easier ways of obtaining job satisfaction,’ he said.
Warnings for the future
Bill Davis was not the only senior management figure in British Leyland warning its workforce that greater effort needed to be made after a dire year of industrial strife, particularly in the components industry. However, his appeals went unheeded. The Conservative Government had now revealed its plans to reform industrial relations and protest strikes abounded in addition to the strikes afflicting Triumph over lay off pay.
On 9 December, 350 workers were laid off in Coventry because of a shortage of car bodies caused by a protest strike at Speke against the proposed Industrial Relations Bill. The Coventry Shops Stewards called out 8000 manual workers on strike. It cost the firm 600 cars urgently needed to meet deliveries held up by the GKN-Sankey strike more than two months before.
A spokesman for the Shop Stewards said: ‘We have done this before and we intend to do it again until British Leyland falls into line with other car firms and introduces a proper system of lay-off pay.’
Saving money ended up costing BLMC a fortune
British Leyland was finding out that trying to save money to stay in business was costing them a fortune, thanks to the militancy of the very people they had been created to help.
It has always been taken for granted by historians that the British Leyland Corporate Sportscar became a Triumph because the BLMC Board was biased in favour of the Canley concern. However, no documentary evidence has surfaced to support this, in fact the reverse is true. Back in 1994 Timothy Whisler in his book, The British Motor Industry, 1945-94: A Case Study in Industrial Decline unearthed minutes of meetings that revealed that the corporate sports car in late 1970 was likely to be badged as an MG and built at Abingdon.
The biggest advocate of this was no less than former Standard-Triumph International General Manager George Turnbull, now Managing Director of the Austin-Morris division.
Triumph Puma makes way for Rover P10
On 11 December the Triumph Board met to discuss the situation. By now, Triumph had been told to drop its 2000/2.5 PI replacement programme, the ‘Puma.’ The British Leyland corporate executive car would be engineered by Rover, which in light of the P6’s sales supremacy over its Triumph rival, was an understandable decision. Now Triumph faced losing the sports car side of its operations to Austin-Morris, leaving it with just its small ‘Bobcat’ saloon project to replace the 1300/Toledo.
The Managing Director, Bill Davis, who was ex-BMC, told the Triumph Board that ‘every effort’ had to be made to ‘change the plans… that gave rise to this situation.’
On 28 December, Bill Sanders, Triumph’s new Director and General Manager, said in a personal message to 11,500 employees, that to lift the company out of trouble they needed to produce 170,000 cars in the financial year, which began in October 1970. Triumph workers in Coventry were told they had to produce 3000 cars each week to overcome losses estimated at several million pounds. So far in the financial year their best had been 2457.
1970: a year of contrasts
‘The figures for October were frankly very bad and in November and December the deficit has continued but at a lower level. This unfortunately means that we have to wipe out the bad months first before we can regain our rightful position as one of British Leyland’s leading companies. It would be foolish to pretend that everything will go smoothly in 1971 but the coming 12 months can be a year of opportunity for the company and the people in it,’ said Bill Sanders.
Jim Griffin, Convenor of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, said the men were prepared to hit the target providing the company could give them the parts to build the cars. ‘It all comes down to bits and pieces in the end and stoppages at supply firms causing us to be laid off.’
1970 had been a grim year for Triumph with total production for the financial year down by a whopping 18 per cent, the lowest since 1963.
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Twelve : April to October 1974 - 27 September 2021
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Eleven : January to April 1974 - 23 August 2021
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Ten : 1973 - 19 July 2021